For students at Karner Blue and Bellaire Education Centers, science is happening right outside their classroom windows, literally. With the establishment of the Bellaire School Forest three years ago and the Karner Blue School Forest this year, Northeast Metro 916 now has two school forests that enhance curriculum areas through outdoor learning, critical thinking and practical classroom applications.
“Some students don’t want to be in class, but when we go outside, they are more engaged,” says Juliane Chapman, Bellaire Education Center science teacher. “I have seen more engagement from the students and they have a heightened sense of ownership of their learning.”
Both school forests are a part of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources School Forest program, which boasts over 120 school forests across Minnesota and provides resources, training and curriculum that is tied to Minnesota state standards. Northeast Metro 916 also partners with the University of Minnesota to bring an instructor out to each site once a week to enhance nature-based teaching and learning.
Last spring, students at Bellaire used the school forest as a laboratory for studying dragonflies. They went on nature walks to study birds and insects in their natural habitat, and were able to bring their knowledge back to the classroom where they hatched their own dragonfly eggs and watched them transform in front of their very eyes.
At Karner Blue, every student is adopting a tree to learn about Phenology, the study of plant and animal life cycles. Rather than studying the changes of seasons in the classroom from a book or a website, students have the opportunity to go outside and touch, smell, see and hear their surroundings and experience how a tree changes with the seasons first-hand. As part of the year-long project, students are keeping a research journal to document how their tree has changed over time. Some students even name their tree.
“The more we go outside, the more the students appreciate it,” says Steven Scott, Karner Blue curriculum support specialist. “It is fun watching the students experience the “wow” factor of seeing things in nature for the first time and feeling an increased sense of curiosity and respect for the world around them. There are a lot of therapeutic elements to it as well.”
“Even just to nature and having students close their eyes and hear the noises they wouldn't normally hear brings them a sense of inner joy and awareness of who they are; It makes students feel like they are part of something exciting,” adds Val Rae Boe, Karner Blue principal.
In the end, the school forest provides lessons for both students and adults to slow down and enjoy the nature that surrounds us – you never know what you will see, or learn.